Friday, March 04, 2011

Whitey Harrison 1

"Whitey" Harrison (1913-1993)

Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison “began surfing in 1925 at age 12, and eight years later was among the first to ride San Onofre,” wrote Matt Warshaw in his Encyclopedia of Surfing.  “[I]n 1933 he won the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships.  Harrison labored as a surfboard builder, lifeguard, dry cleaner, and night watchman, but the majority of his work life – for roughly 30 years, beginning in 1946 – was spent as a lobster and abalone diver.”[1]
Whitey also did some orange and avocado ranching, but his work history was almost all related to the ocean.  He was instrumental in introducing outrigger canoe racing to the U.S. Mainland; put in time as a lifeguard; surfboard builder and innovator, and lobster and abalone harvester based out of Dana Point Harbor.  “Whitey was one of the best divers on the coast,” said noted diver David Tompkins.  “He was all over the place, living up at Cojo for weeks at a time, diving out in the Channel Islands.  He showed us the way.”[2]

“He had to keep busy all the time,” remembered his daughter Rosie.[3]

[Pete] Peterson and [Whitey] Harrison were the two best surfers in California in the 1930s,” wrote one of surfing’s earliest photographers, Don James.  “Each of them had won the prestigious Pacific Coast championship.  Both were incredible watermen who excelled at diving, canoe surfing, sailing, swimming, body surfing, tandem riding, fishing, and boat and board building, in addition to conventional stand-up surfing.”[4]

And they were both best of friends.

Born in Garden Grove, California, in 1913, Lorrin Harrison became not only a great surfer, but – like Pete Peterson – an accomplished waterman in many of the ocean disciplines including sailing, fishing, diving and paddling.  His personal history in surfing reflects much of the development of the sport and lifestyle in both California and Hawai‘i from the 1920s on thru the 1950s.

“Where we lived, west of town,” Whitey recalled in an interview for The Surfer’s Journal just before his passing, “there wasn’t much in those days.  Everybody lived there because things would grow.  Garden Grove, at the time, was just like a garden.  After that, my family moved to Santa Ana Canyon where my dad built a big house up on a hill... Our family had a place in Laguna ever since I was one year old, right at Sleepy Hollow.  My mom and dad would take us down there on a horse and wagon back when you had to go through Aliso Canyon to get to Laguna.  It took days for us to get there.  They’d stop to visit friends along the way.  We had chickens at our home, there at Sleepy Hollow, and we kept a cow in a field across the wagon road from us.”[5]

“We used to body surf the entire stretch of beach from Sleepy Hollow rocks to Main Beach,” Whitey continued.  “In the fifth grade, I made a plank, about 4-5’ long and 18” wide to ride with.  We were body surfing all the time back then.  I’d never seen anybody ride standing until about 1920 when my dad took us to Redondo Beach in the car.  We parked up on a hill and ate lunch there and I looked down and saw these guys riding surfboards.”[6]

Mentioning the influence of the Father of Southern California Surfing George Freeth, Whitey noted of Redondo: “That was where Freeth had started surfing.  My dad was thinking of buying a lot there, but we had the place in Laguna, and we were happy with it there.”[7]  Those surfers Lorrin had watched were, most probably, the protégés George Freeth had left behind when he moved from Redondo to San Diego over a decade before.[8]

Whitey made the transition from body surfing to stand-up surfing by 1925.  “My brothers Vern and Winfred, and my sister Ethel and I were like a gang at Sleepy Hollow.  Every year we’d build a raft and swim it out to the kelp in front of our house.  We floated an old wood burning stove out there, sunk it, filled it with rocks and anchored the raft to it with cable.  We’d go fishin’ out there.  I can remember my mom getting so mad at me for getting my sister to swim out there.  And I said, ‘Well, Jesus, if she can swim to her surfboard she can swim out there.’  By then we all had these redwood boards about 4’ long that we’d ride.  We all grew up riding shore crashers that would just annihilate us on those boards.  In school I made a hollow one.  It was like a sled with runners curving up in front with 1/4” planks nailed crossways, it was about 18” wide.  I covered it with canvas tacked on with copper tacks and painted it.  We’d ride it till we wore the canvas off, then we’d put new on.”[9]

“When I was twelve,” Whitey recalled, “I started walking to Corona del Mar from Laguna Beach to go surfing.  There was a crew of stand-up surfers who would ride Corona back then.  Carroll Bertolet, Jack Pyle, Wally Burton, Keller Watson, Bud Higgins.  Guys from Huntington Beach and all over would come to Corona del Mar because it could be just a 3-foot surf, but it would pile up real high next to that jetty.  If a guy couldn’t catch the wave, we’d throw him a rope and pull him on his redwood while running along the jetty.  We’d pull ‘em right into the wave.  We surfed there from 1927 till 1935.  That’s when they dredged the channel out to 60’ deep.

“They had cables going across the break out to the dredge.  We’d be riding and we’d have to jump the cable or lay down on our back to go under it.  We thought it was great fun to go out there with the construction going on, surfing in all that.  We used to walk there from Laguna because there was no way to drive at the time.  I didn’t have a board then, but there was a bathhouse at Corona del Mar and Duke [Kahanamoku] had made a board out of white pine and left it there.  There were a lot of redwoods there, too.  Later on, I’d leave boards at one of the Thomas brothers’ houses up on the bluff.  And there was the Chinese house at China Cove, I sometimes kept my board there too.  It took us a couple of hours to walk the twelve miles from Laguna Beach to Corona del Mar, but all the way was pretty nice.” [10]

It was the era of Prohibition of alcohol and Lorrin noted that “There was nothing from Abalone Hill all that way, except rum runners’ leftover crates, boxes and bottles strewn around the beach.”[11]

“Lorrin was the craziest friend I ever had,” recalled Ned Leutzinger, a fellow surfer and a friend of Lorrin’s at least since high school.  “Why, one time when he was just in high school Lorrin got up in the middle of the night and rode the old family horse from his house to his girl friend, Helen Harper’s house.  She was asleep on the back porch, so he just tied up the horse and climbed into bed with her.”[12]

Another time, Lorrin wrote an excuse for missing school.  “The Big Ones are Humping,” he wrote and the teacher wanted to know what he meant.  He was pulled into the principal’s office, and he, too, wanted to know what Lorrin meant by that.  “It means just what it says,” Lorrin replied and was expelled from high school for two weeks.  “He always told us it was the best two weeks of surfing he ever had,” wrote his daughter Rosie.  “That was before they put the breakwater in at Corona del Mar…”[13]

Ned Leutzinger told another story of Lorrin at his high school graduation:

“That morning Lorrin and I got a ride early to Laguna to go fishing in his brother Winfred’s boat.  The barracuda were running and we thought we had plenty of time.  We did catch one really big one and decided to call it quits.  We had to hitch-hike home to Orange.  Several hours went by before we caught a ride.  Lorrin just missed his graduation, but accepted his diploma backstage.  With his big barracuda wrapped in newspaper in one hand, he shook hands with the principal and received his diploma with the other.  Needless to say his mother, father, aunts and uncles that had come to watch were less than pleased.”[14]

By the beginning of the 1930s, The Great Depression was in full swing.  “My mother was a school teacher and my brothers and sister were going to school,” Whitey recalled.  “I was eighteen so she said I either had to get a job or go to school.  So I went over and signed up for Fullerton Junior College.  But every time I’d show up at the beach, Willy Grigsby would be there just back from Hawaii and he’d tell me, ‘God, Whitey, you’ve gotta go over there, you won’t believe it.  The warmest water, you can stay in all day.  It’s paradise!’  So I told my folks, ‘I’ll get a job.’”[15]

O‘ahu 1932

Whitey Harrison “was one of the first California surfers to come to Hawaii and join the Hawaiians in the big surf,” read a description of Whitey, as one of the world’s surfing greats, written in 1960.[16]  “Every year from 1932 on I went to Hawaii,” Whitey declared.  “In 1932 I was over there for six months.  I’d go in the winter.”[17]

“I started hitch hiking every day all the way to San Pedro to catch a ship.  To get there, we’d hop bumpers on the back of cars with the spare tire and big rear bumper.  The cops would be blowin’ whistles runnin’ after us.  There was a guy that went the first time with me called Doakes.  He was gonna go to Hawaii if I’d go.  He was studying to be a doctor, but he didn’t show up again.”[18]

Charles Butler was better known amongst some surfers as “Doaks.”  Later on in the decade, he was photographed at Long Beach’s Flood Control and mentioned in Doc Ball’s California Surfriders, 1946.  He was studying to become a medical doctor when he enlisted in the Navy, during World War II.  Doaks went down with the Edsal when it was sunk by the Japanese in the early stages of the war in the Pacific.[19]

“Different guys would back out,” Whitey went on of his attempt to ship out in the early 1930s, “but I kept going up there [to the San Pedro docks] trying to get a job.  There were lines of able-bodied seamen looking for work, so they weren’t going to hire any kid out of high school.  I went up there for two months, hitch-hiking back and forth and never getting out.  I got so tired of it, I finally climbed on the U.S.S. Monterey... Duke was on there, but he didn’t know me then.  They had a dance, then the boat took off that evening and I just stayed on.  I went out and slept in a steamer chair.  About three or four in the morning this guy came by and said, ‘Hey, where’s your room?’  I said, ‘I couldn’t find it, I made a mistake...’ So he went off looking for my name and I took off and ran into some other officer.  This is late at night the first night out, so they took me to the Captain and logged me in as a stowaway.  They caught three more of us.  Everyone was either riding freights or stowing away [during The Depression], that was the only way to get anywhere.  So they kept us in the brig, but we got to eat the same as the crew.  Then about five miles off Diamond Head, they had us climb down a Jacob’s ladder to a tug and we laid out there from 4 a.m. to 6:00 that night.  Four stowaways and none of us knew each other.  I could see the Moana Hotel onshore... it looked like paradise, and I was ready to swim in until we saw some giant sharks.  That night, they put us on a freighter, the Manakai, and we ended up in San Francisco.”[20]

“All that time my mom was thinking I must have gotten a job cause I didn’t show up.  Anyway, the next morning we had to appear before a judge.  We walked in there chained together and the judge says, ‘You guys are from L.A., we don’t like your type up here.  I give you twenty-four hours to get out of town or we’ll really get you,’ and they turned us loose.’”[21]  Lorrin turned right around and did the stowaway thing once more:

“This guy from Belgium ,” continued Lorrin, “said the lifeboats were the spot.  The lifeboats hung one above the other, out over the side.  So I hid out for two-and-a-half days inside one of them.  It was coal black in there.  I couldn’t see anything.  When I finally climbed out I was punchy from no food or water... So they hauled me up and stuck me in the isolation ward.  All they gave you on that ship was bread and water and I was pretty hungry.  They were supposed to have emergency provisions on the lifeboats, but there weren’t any there.  The night before we got to Honolulu, they found the Belgian and they threatened to transfer us by bosum chair to a ship headed back to San Francisco, but the sea was too rough.  So we sailed into the dock at the Aloha Tower in Honolulu with the Royal Hawaiian Band playing and streamers flying off the boat.  We were the first people off the boat, in handcuffs, and they turned us over.  But the cops were great.  I ate six breakfasts, ham and eggs, everything!  They made us stay at the station till the boat left.  When I walked out I was able to find a job for four dollars a day pressing clothes.  I ended up with a room next door to Pua Kealoha and John Oliver, the beach boys, for $7.50 a month.  It had one bed and a wash basin.  I had heard about Pete Peterson and seen him... He and Don DeGrotti came over after I did and were staying right on the beach for $25 a month.  But they were broke and nobody sent them any money, so he and Don moved in with me.  It ended up they got the bed most of the time.  We hitched around the island together and saw Haleiwa when it was just huge.  I stayed for six months, then stowed away home with Pete.  I went over and back every year from then on through 1935, and of course, many times after that.”[22]

1960s surf champ Nat Young remarked, “Stowing away became a surfing tradition that continued right into the ‘sixties.”[23]

Waikiki was still the world’s heart of surfing in the 1930s.  Whitey teamed up with Pete Peterson and they both lived together for a while and became close friends at this time.  They were two of a very small group of early haole surfers who were fortunate to taste Waikiki surf.  “The first hard-core surf guys to hit Waikiki that I knew of consisted of Pete Peterson, Lorrin Harrison and Tom Blake who went there before the war,” wrote Walter Hoffman, another Californian who went to live and surf in Hawai‘i in a second wave of surf invaders in the 1940s.[24]

While in Waikiki, Whitey worked as a beach boy, ala Tom Blake.  In addition to friends like Pete Peterson, Blake, Wally Froiseth and John Kelly, Whitey also hung with the Father of Surfing, Duke Kahanamoku.

[1] Warshaw, Matt.  Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 252.
[2] Surfer, Volume 35, Number 1, January 1994, p. 30.
[3] Clark, Rosie Harrision.  Let’s Go, Let’s Go! © 1997, p. 140.
[4] James, Don.  Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 129.  Don James written caption to image on p. 59.
[5] Stecyk, C.R.  “Lorrin’s Barn,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 2, No. 4, Winter 1993-94, pp. 35-36.
[6] Stecyk, C.R.  “Lorrin’s Barn,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 2, No. 4, Winter 1993-94, p. 36.
[7] Stecyk, C.R.  “Lorrin’s Barn,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 2, No. 4, Winter 1993-94, p. 36.
[8] Gault-Williams, “Bronzed Mercury: George Freeth,” Volume 1 of LEGENDARY SURFERS.  See also Verge.
[9] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 36.
[10] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 36.
[11] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 36.
[12] Clark, Rosie Harrison.  Let’s Go, Let’s Go! The Biography of Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison: California’s Legendary Surf Pioneer, © 1997, p. 10.  Ned Leutzinger quoted.
[13] Clark, Let’s Go, Let’s Go! © 1997, p. 12.
[14] Clark, Let’s Go, Let’s Go!  © 1997, p. 10.  Ned Leutzinger quoted.
[15] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 37.
[16] Patterson, O.B.  Surf-Riding, It’s Thrills and Techniques, ©1960, published by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Japan, 60-10364, p. 110.
[17] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 37.
[18] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, pp. 37-38.
[19] Gault-Williams, “Redwoods, Hollows & Redwood Combos,” LEGENDARY SURFERSSee also Ball, 1946, pp. 72-73.
[20] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, pp. 37-38.
[21] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, pp. 37-38.
[22] Stecyk, The Surfer’s Journal, Winter 1993-94, p. 38.  Whitey stated that he had seen Pete Peterson at San Onofre before his first trip to Hawai‘i, but he probably meant Corona del Mar, as the move to San Onofre did not get underway until around the time the channel was dredged out to 60 feet.
[23] Young, 1983, p. 56.
[24] Hoffman, Walter.  “Tales of Town and Country, the Early Years: 1948-1954,” The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 1, Number 3, Fall 1992, p. 79.

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